Finding A Voice
Jo could never have guessed that the friendship she so desperately craves would come in the shape of a severely disabled boy. He can’t even speak. Maybe it is because he can’t speak that she finds herself telling him how difficult it is living with her eccentric, mentally fragile mother.
Behind Chris’ lopsided grin and gigantic blue wheelchair is a real person — with a sense of humour, a tremendous stubborn streak and a secret he has kept from everyone.
For a while it seems life may actually get better. But as Jo finds out just how terrible life is for Chris, and as her own life spirals out of control, she becomes desperate to change things for both of them. In a dramatic turn of events, Jo makes a decision that could end in tragedy.
This is the story of how an unusual friendship unlocks the words that neither knew they had.
Thirteen-year-old Jo lives with her mother, who has a “non specific psychiatric illness”. Jo spends most of her time trying to keep her mother on an even keel and feels an enormous sense of failure when she is unable to do that and has to call in professionals to take charge. At school she longs for a friend, but is shunned because she has a “weird” mother and because she doesn’t really know how to interact with people her own age (“I had just never seemed to understand the rules of girl friendships”). She finally meets a girl, Sarah, with whom she thinks she can be friends, but after her one visit to Sarah’s home Jo’s mother has a meltdown; the next day she finds out a girl from her old school has told Sarah about Jo’s problems at home. Jo’s embarrassment and conviction that Sarah now won’t want to be a friend cause her to avoid the other girl thereafter.
Her school psychologist suggests that instead of hiding away at lunchtimes Jo helps out in the special education wing. Here she meets Chris, a boy two years older than her with cerebral palsy. Jo finds it easy to talk to Chris, who is unable to respond, and unburdens herself to him, which she finds strangely cathartic (“his stare was intense, like he was listening like nobody had ever listened to me before”). Gradually she learns to interpret Chris’s movements and realises he is trying to communicate with her and actually understands completely what she is saying. Thinking that she is the only one who believes Chris is capable of more than it appears on the surface – his other carers talk over him as though he is invisible, and coo “as if talking to a baby in a high-chair” – she devises a method to enable them to converse. As she becomes closer to Chris – helping him at mealtimes, acting as his aide in art class, visiting his home – she becomes less tolerant of her mother’s unpredictable behaviour.
This is a deeply moving book and the subtitle, “Friendship is a two-way street”, entirely embodies the story. I could really empathise with Jo’s isolation, and I found it wholly believable that a thirteen-year-old would be a carer to her mentally ill mother. The authorities were trying to help Jo, but she is reluctant to accept it as she wants to protect her mother and is also in denial about how bad things really are. She can’t even really open up to her grandmother, who comes to stay when her mother is hospitalised.
Both Jo’s mother’s mental health problems and Chris’s physical problems are portrayed very well, as are Jo’s feelings of not fitting in to the adolescent world around her (“I don’t have any friends. I don’t even know how to have friends.”), even though she desperately wants to (“I thought it would be different this year.”). The writing draws you to see what Jo can’t see herself: that she is so intent on helping her mother and her friend (physically, mentally and as an advocate and protector) that she is unable to see that she needs help herself. I love this passage, where Jo is meeting with the school psychologist:
“Do you notice something” she hinted. “Your relationship with your mom and the one you are creating with Chris are pretty similar aren’t they?”
“What do you mean?” My defences rose up.
“You want to fix them both.”
“That’s not true!” I denied. “Is it a crime to hope someone’s life can be better?”
“Sometimes you need to take the kettle to the repair shop because you are not a small appliance mechanic.”
“What does that mean?” I felt annoyed. Dr Sharon usually just nodded in agreement when I spoke. Why was she trying to make me feel bad, just when everything in my life was going so well?
“Jo, it sounds like you are a fantastic help to your mom and to your friend. But Chris is Chris, and your mom is your mom. Not everything can be fixed.”
I didn’t respond. She was getting everything wrong.
“Ok. We’ll leave that,” she said. “What about you? Who is in your life helping you?”
“I’m fine. I don’t need any help.”
The story is told from the first-person point of view of Jo. The writing is quite beautiful, but I felt that Jo had far too much world- and self-awareness for a young teenager, even one that was parenting a parent. She is at the same time wise beyond her years and rather naïve.
It wasn’t really explained how Chris could read, when most of the adults involved had given up trying to help him fulfil his potential. The story takes a not entirely believable twist when Jo spontaneously decides to take Chris away from his home, where she thinks he is unhappy. What I found most hard to accept is a thirteen-year-old pushing a teenager for miles in a manual wheelchair off-road and through water – that would require monumental effort and would probably end in disaster. I feel that the story could have been taken to its conclusion without this unlikely turn of events. And Chris’s physical needs are ignored – his need for food and for a bathroom. This aside, in the few other places I felt I needed to suspend belief I found it easy to do so, as the writing is powerful enough and fast-paced enough for the reader to go along with the story and empathise with the characters. And I so empathised with the characters.
Without being preachy, there are lessons in this story for all of us, whatever our age: you don't have to cope on your own – there is no shame in asking for help; you might not fit in right now, but there is a place for you in the world; don’t assume you can tell what a person is thinking or needs from you, or is defined by a mental or physical disability (Jo on her mother: “She doesn’t care if she’s weird. And I don’t really either, most of the time. But everyone else does, and they’re afraid I’m as weird as her.”; on Chris: “I felt like I was truly seeing him now, not just his wheelchair.”); sometimes people need a little understanding to help them reach their potential; friendship is based on mutual respect and understanding.
Editorial Input & Design
Editorial input This is a thoroughly professionally produced book, with just a couple of typos. I might have suggested making the “twist” a little more realistic. And I would have suggested losing some of the dialogue tags, particularly as this is written in first-person: the tone of the first-person is perfect for this story, but when someone is recounting something they don’t normally say “I retorted”, “I recounted”, “I lectured” and so on. "Said" would work just fine, or even nothing at all.
Cover: A fab cover – I really like it. It is entirely fitting for the book. The title is just brilliant – with both Chris and Jo needing to learn how to communicate and the story showing how indeed “friendship is a two-way street”.
Internal design: I read the paperback. Perfect – very professional.
Book Clubs & Reviews
I think it would make an excellent book club choice for a teenage book club, but maybe not quite so much so for an adult club. There are plenty of strands to discuss: living with someone with a mental illness; whether a child should be a carer for an ill adult; seeing beyond a disability; bullying; teenagers’ need to fit in with their peers; the care of someone who needs round-the-clock help; the education of youngsters with disabilities.
What others are saying: Amazon UK readers give it 5 stars (6 reviewers); Goodreads readers give it 3.83 stars (53 ratings).
Buy & Author
Published by The O'Brien Press, Dublin www.obrien.ie
ISBN Paperback 9781847175434 (240 pages); ePub 9781847177087
O'Brien Press (paperback €7.99; epub €6.99)
hive.co.uk (paperback £5.67; ePub £5.38)
Kenny’s (paperback €8.55)
Amazon (Kindle £3.59/$5.40; paperback £6.99)
Follow the author:
Links of interest:
Young Writers Interview with the author
#TeamFindingAVoice Twitter chat with Kim prior to the YA Book Prize announcement. (The prize was won by Louise O'Neill for Only Ever Yours.)